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Lunar: The Silver Star (Sega CD) artwork

Lunar: The Silver Star (Sega CD) review

"Lunar is not an epic. There are no warring factions, political agendas, or corrupt religions. The game's not even long — it can be completed in a day. Lunar is a short story for children and children-at-heart, full of knights, dragons, damsels in distress, and brave damsels in dress."

In the early 1990s, before Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger, the Japanese RPG was dead to the West. Square punished us with Mystic Quest and blamed its failure on the genre. The Dragon Warrior series perished with the NES. Sega published a few RPGs here and there, but only the proven Phantasy Star received any significant advertising. People were buying 16-bit systems for platformer action and sports, dammit!

Lunar: The Silver Star's story begins during this dark era.

By the time Working Designs announced Lunar was coming to the United States, I was already familiar with their work. While the rest of the country ignored Japanese RPGs, Working Designs had published TurboGrafx games like Cosmic Fantasy 2 and Exile for the starved roleplayers of the West, achieving a nearly 90% sell-through ratio. Working Designs was the nation's RPG king, and Lunar would be their first game on a truly popular system.

My frothing anticipation was rewarded with an engaging fairytale. Lunar is not an epic. There are no warring factions, political agendas, or corrupt religions. The game's not even long — it can be completed in a day. Lunar is a short story for children and children-at-heart, full of knights, dragons, damsels in distress, and brave damsels in dress. This game speaks to a younger audience than its sequel, as the developers themselves admit . . . but it speaks with a rare sincerity that's likely to bring a smile to child and curmudgeon alike.

"North of the village of Burg lies a memorial to a valiant warrior. He arose during a time of trial and saved the world. That hero, called Dyne, was a dragonmaster. Dragonmaster Dyne was born in this sleepy village of Burg, and it's here that a young boy named Alex visits the memorial to his fallen hero every day."

Spurred on by a heroic heart and his fortune-hunting friend Ramus, Alex sets out to find adventure, since it hasn't been finding him. Along the way, Alex bonds with his childhood sweetheart Luna, explores some weird woods (aptly called "The Weird Woods"), negotiates with stubborn witches, and learns that dragons defecate enormous diamonds.

The cutscenes — often a focal point for these old, CD-based Japanese RPGs — are infrequent and disappointing. When Alex meets the premier guildmage Ghaleon, it's a simple portrait with large black borders . . . a far cry from Cosmic Fantasy 2's colorful, animated, full-screen cinematics!

This does not mean Lunar lacks heart. When Ramus finds his fortune, he bids Alex farewell. On his way out, the pudgy sprite silently turns around and pauses; this is his last moment in an adventure that exceeds his abilities, and he wants to remember it well. The in-game visuals show off a keen emotional awareness.

Alex's adventure is accompanied by upbeat melodies spooled directly from the disc. GameArts used the Sega CD's redbook capabilities for what was, at the time, higher-quality synth than you'd find on either the Genesis or SNES. This is how most CD-based games were done; full orchestral or symphonic arrangement are rare. Lunar's music emphasized memorable melodies above rich instrumentation. As a result, the once-rockin' battle music sounds tinny and false today. Many tracks beg for a modern remake, but a few — such as the piano melody and the echoic dragon chamber ambiance — remain as magical as the day I first heard them.

The best fairytales feature really diabolical villains — the kind of fiends who kick puppies or poison their own children. When Lunar's big villain introduces himself, he immediately kidnaps innocent women, imprisons revered leaders, murders wizened sages, replaces Alex's parents with demon imposters, and SMASHES DRAGONMASTER DYNE'S MEMORIAL.

The villain also rides around inside an enormous, seemingly unstoppable steampunk tank and rolls over entire villages. If you want to see The Power Of Evil, then play this version of Lunar; the 32-bit remake puts the heroes on a somewhat level playing field, and actually tries to make the villain sympathetic.

Snow White's stepmother should not be sympathetic, and neither should Lunar's archfiend. Thankfully, the Sega CD version dispenses with any notion of redemption; it simply piles one monstrosity atop another, increasing the feeling of hopelessness, laying the groundwork for a classic final confrontation.

The music during that final confrontation is ridiculously good. When the villain reveals himself halfway through the game, Lunar's soundtrack changes; it shifts from light-hearted to desperately heroic, from unyielding homophony to occasional polyphony. This is the soundtrack that skyrocketed Noriyuki Iwadare's career, and it's a shame that every single track was replaced with something completely different in the 32-bit remake.

Lunar was developer GameArts' first RPG, and it demonstrates ambition in a lot of ways beyond its soundtrack. The characters were designed by Toshiyuki Kubooka, an artist with a distinctive "clean" style who would go on to design characters for the legendary Giant Robo anime. The combat system expanded the then-traditional "monsters on left, heroes on right" style, augmenting combat with actual battlefield movement. This allowed for rudimentary tactical positioning, but GameArts didn't let this encumber the swift battles; fights are quick and painless, despite the relatively high random encounter rate.

Then there's the dialogue.

At one point, a girlish mage named Mia asked me to help her mother. I said no; Mia whimpered and cried. I turned to leave, but my talking pet — the perfect fairytale companion — stopped me. He was mad. He thought my behavior was immoral. I tried to leave anyway. He asked how I could abandon a girl in such a fragile state of mind. I tried to pay him no heed. My pet mockingly imitated me:

"I am Alex, the girly man! No Mia, I cannot help your mother. The monsters in the spire are too dangerous!"

Again, I turned to leave, but my furry friend had more to say. He ran through ten different dialogue snippets before he finally cycled back to the first. Lesson learned: characters in Lunar have a lot to say. In the instruction manual, Working Designs pointed out that they had never before translated a game containing so much text.

Working Designs usually included such "designers' notes" in their instruction manuals to give customers some insight into the localization process . . . although they occasionally lied. There's a picture of the black dragon fight in the instruction manual. One of the characters shown in the player's party isn't supposed to be there, which led hundreds of gamers to try and discover Lunar's secret sequence break, until Working Designs headman Victor Ireland spilled the beans on his message board: it's a fake picture. They were just screwing around with software editors and left the photo in there.

But that's okay. The black dragon battle was still pretty damn thrilling.

Lunar: The Silver Star was a labor of love for developer GameArts, and a labor of love for publisher Working Designs. The game even featured an embossed cover . . . for people who waited until after Christmas. The normal-looking first print was quickly replaced by a fancy second edition with silver lettering that gleamed and six alternate sets of disc art.

Lunar certainly shows its age today, but still remains one of my most cherished Christmas gifts. It contains the childish gags you'd expect from a Disney film — in a world of beautiful singers, one lady sings so off-key that my ears bled. It embodies the youthful desire for adventure. And it delivers a villain so diabolical that the hero looks that much stronger for eventually overcoming the odds. Lunar is a classic fairytale adventure, and I pray that GameArts will someday give us something other than another remake.



zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (January 04, 2010)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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radicaldreamer posted January 04, 2010:

As usual, you are the best. Lunar is hard to write about because it's difficult to express what makes it so great without it coming off as lame. Then again, I've only played the 32-bit remakes, and my love affair is with them. From what I learned in this review there are actually quite a few appreciable differences, but some of your remarks nevertheless echoed some of my feelings on the remakes. Some funny stuff too.
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zigfried posted January 04, 2010:

Thank you for the compliment! The remake (for the first game) actually aims to a slightly older audience; it succeeds in several ways, and weakens the magic in others. As you could probably tell, I personally prefer the original.

When reviewing Lunar, it would definitely be easy to slip into effusive praise... I tried to focus on concrete things that are unique to this version so that anyone reading it would feel somehow informed, even if they're already familiar with the series.

If you ever have the chance, you should check out the original Lunar 2. The storylines and cinematics are VERY faithful to the remake, except that the original has:

1) bigger, more complex dungeons
2) differently balanced boss difficulty (Borgan and the other "character bosses" are harder, while the dragons near the end are easier)
3) an unexpected death scene
4) a cool special song for the final dungeon that didn't make the Playstation cut
5) fully animated cinematics, but no artifacting since it's not FMV
6) most of the music sounds muddier :(

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joseph_valencia posted January 04, 2010:


7) Much, much cooler music for the first phase of the final boss.

The music sounds muddier, but beneath all that compression it's higher quality than the Playstation MIDIs.
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radicaldreamer posted January 04, 2010:

I thought the song for the final dungeon in the remake was pretty cool
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CoarseDragon posted January 04, 2010:

What a horrible shame Working Designs is no longer with us. One can only wonder if XSEED will do justice.

I really enjoyed reading your review. Good job and good memories.
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zigfried posted January 04, 2010:

Thanks! It's too bad that Working Designs really started going crazy near the end though (they boasted of a PSX-exclusive Thunder Force V boss, but there is not one)

Radicaldreamer: It's not that the final dungeon music isn't cool... but it was recycled from a previous dungeon. In the Sega CD version, the Star Tower has unique music.

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zigfried posted January 04, 2010:

As an FYI, I just submitted my high score for Lunar.

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radicaldreamer posted January 04, 2010:

Wait, do you mean the final dungeon in the epilogue, as in, post-Zophar? Because I was thinking of the final dungeon music in the remake as this.
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zigfried posted January 04, 2010:

I was referring to the final final dungeon (the tower in the epilogue). I think it's the first track on the Lunar 2 CD that came with the PSX game, if you have that. Working Designs commissioned a new song because they didn't think the last dungeon in an RPG should re-use music from earlier in the game. Sadly, they didn't do the same in the remake.

The song you linked is very good, by the way. It's in the Sega CD version too. My personal favorite track is "Lucia vs Zophar".

EDIT: changed the link to a different version of the song

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radicaldreamer posted January 04, 2010:

I'm guessing you're talking about this one then, which is never actually played in the remake. Somehow I still very much associate it with my experience with the game and love it accordingly.
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zigfried posted January 04, 2010:

Yep, that's the one.

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joseph_valencia posted January 26, 2011:

This review is a labor of love to rival "Lunar: Eternal Blue." You absolutely nail the vibe of the game, and you sprinkle a lot of interesting trivia tidbits that a true devotee to this cult classic would know and appreciate.

(For the record: My copy was one of the later prints, with the embossed letters.)

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